Excerpts from A Matter of Life and Death

MITCHELL WILLOUGHBY – Death Row inmate: Tennessee, USA

Having been on ‘death row’ for over 30 years, I have had to deal with major issues of anger, self-worth and forgiveness. I can truthfully say that my Buddhist practice has transformed me from being a drug and alcohol addict to being more human. I have had to learn to accept my fate.

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MOLLY CARLILE – Death talker, palliative care activist: Australia

I have spent the bulk of my career working with dying and grieving people, teaching others how to sit in personal discomfort in order to support them. Through this, I have an enormous collection of stories, poetry and songs that relate to mortality and the meaning of life. I believe that the arts provide a vehicle for people to speak the ‘unspeakable’ and express the ‘in-expressible.’

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JOSEFINE SPEYER – Psychotherapist; death education specialist; co-founder: Natural Death Centre, UK

I believe we should be making friends with death and embracing death as part of life, as all the great religions try to teach us. To lead a good and meaningful life we need to remember that we are mortal. This is my daily practice and it helps me to appreciate all aspects of my life: my health, family, friends, the people I work with, as well as nature, animals and the environment. Life is so fragile and we are all here for such a brief period of time.

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Excerpts from Mosaic

1. Television and radio presenter Andrew Denton chose this Buddhist-like poem (author unknown)

Watch your feelings; they become your thoughts
Watch your thoughts; they become your words
Watch your words; they become your actions
Watch your actions; they become your habits
Watch your habits; they become your character
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

Reflections by Andrew Denton: I think these words are true.

2. Aziza Abdel-Halim, AM, President of the Muslim Women’s National Network of Australia chose a reflection by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, in How to live your daily life according to the teaching of the Qur’an, Lisa Abdullah,

Goodness leads to happiness
Happiness leads to forgiveness,
Forgiveness leads to love,
Love leads to giving,
Giving leads to receiving,
Receiving leads to joy,
Joy leads to appreciation,
Appreciation leads to understanding
Understanding leads to God,
God, The One and Only!

Reflections from Aziza Abdel-Halim: This reflection sums up for me the teachings and spirit of Islam: submission to the One and Only God; that faith and action must go together; that selflessness and work to help others is the best way to help humanity, and in helping humanity you are achieving the highest degree of happiness yourself, basking in God’s light and pleasure.

3. The popular prayer The Peace Prayer was chosen by Tim Costello AO, Fr Chris Riley SDB, AM; Bishop Keith Slater, Frances Seen OAM, Sabina Van Der Linden and Richard Gill OAM. The Peace Prayer is attributed to St Francis.

O Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
where there is discord, harmony.
where there is doubt, faith.
where there is despair, hope.
where there is darkness, light.
where there is sorrow, joy.

Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Reflections by Tim Costello: I use this prayer frequently, both personally and in leading church services. It is associated with St Francis because it was published on a card with his portrait. But apparently it was written in 1912 in France by a priest. It was widely circulated during World War I. It is this historic context – ‘the war to end all wars’ which makes its words most meaningful as a plea for courage, hope and love in the most difficult of human situations. The emphasis on seeking the welfare of others instead of pure self-interest also stands in stark contrast to the mood of modern times.

4. Jesuit priest, lawyer and author Fr Frank Brennan, SJ, AO chose Isaiah 42:1-4

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom my soul delights.
I have endowed him with my spirit
that he may bring true justice to the nations.
He does not cry out or shout aloud,
or make his voice heard in the streets.
He does not break the crushed reed,
nor quench the wavering flame.
Faithfully he brings true justice;
he will neither waver, nor be crushed
until true justice is established on earth,
for the islands are awaiting his law.

Reflections from Frank Brennan: I joined the Jesuit Order in 1975 when there was a strong emphasis in the Order on the relationship between faith and justice. I had just completed my university studies in law and politics. I then had two years’ novitiate, developing my prayer life and reflecting on what God asked of me. My superiors asked me to consider the plight of Aboriginal Australians. I experienced a strong call to go deeper into myself, and to reach out more in the world; to practise law and politics while being attentive to and respecting the voice, experience and wisdom of the voiceless and powerless.

This prayer of the suffering servant has always held in creative and hopeful tension for me the two worlds and the two times in which Christians are called to live, work and pray – the already, but not yet; the achievable, but impossible; the ideal and the real; working, relating and enacting the coming of the Kingdom here on earth, while praying and hoping for the Kingdom to come in which freedom, justice and love might survive even suffering and death, forever.

5. A one-time Sudanese refugee and now medical student, Adut Dau Atem, chose words by her father Dau Atem Yong.

Even if you are starving, you must never ever steal anyone else’s food, no matter how hungry you are. If you do not have food yourself, then you are meant to be starving. Be patient, your time will come. It is never acceptable to take what isn’t yours.

Reflections from Adut: These are the words of my father. When the bombs went off in our school and I became separated from my family, he was a political prisoner. Later, when he was released from prison, he walked for two years trying to locate his family, who were scattered all over the Sudan.

I’d been at a refugee camp, on the Kenyan border, for four years when he walked into our camp. By then I was 13 years old. I’d thought he was dead. It is hard to describe what it was like living in a crowded refugee camp with 90,000 other people. We were given one cup of maize and some oil to eat every two weeks. We had to walk a long way for water and we brought it back in big buckets. When there was no food, we called those ‘black days’. My father would sit us down on the dry dirt with the dry wind blowing in that place where there was no hope, hold us together and speak strongly to our souls, encouraging us to believe we could be anything we dreamed we could be. His words became an echo inside me, helping me to find strength when I had none. He would encourage us to go to the little school at the camp, even when we could not concentrate because of hunger. He loved us and we knew and felt it.

He organised a sponsorship for siblings and me to come to Australia. Two years later, they found my mother whom we thought to be dead. We hadn’t seen her for eleven years; he hadn’t seen her for fifteen. He died two days after she arrived in Australia. His strong spirit is still with me, guiding and encouraging me to keep going. I miss him terribly.

6.One-time world tennis champion John Newcombe AO, OBE chose ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Reflections: This is my favourite poem. And these two lines from it are inscribed above the door at the entrance to Centre Court at Wimbledon:

‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat these two impostors just the same.’

7. Avril Alba, Director of Education at the Sydney Jewish Museum chose

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?

Rabbi Hillel, Pirke Avot 1:14.

Pirke Avot, usually translated as The Ethics of the Fathers, is a collection of rabbinic sayings found in the Mishnah, the central text of the Oral Law, codified circa 200-300.CE

Although deceptively simple, this axiom encapsulates the complex reality in which we all live, work, play and love. As life goes on, it increases in difficulty, and in our desire for simplicity, it is tempting to either subsume the self in the name of the ‘greater good’ or, alternatively, turn away from the community as a means of control and ‘self-preservation’.

What the sages remind us of is that to succumb to either position is to relinquish what it means to truly live: to actively engage with the self and with one’s community, and in so doing contribute toward the ongoing mending (in Hebrew, tikkun) of the world. However, there is no idealisation of this lifelong project. Rabbi Hillel exemplifies the wisdom of classical Jewish sources and their ability to explore the dialectics of human experience. They require the individual to challenge and care for both self and others as the foundational experiences of a truly spiritual life.

8. Tasmanian author Heather Rose chose a Lakota (Native American) Prayer

O Tunkashila, Wakan Tanka, Tatiya Topa, Unci Maka, Wapila, Wapila …

Heather’s reflections:

In the mornings I like to climb the hill behind our house to watch the sunrise and these are always my first words. I learned this prayer as a young woman when I travelled to the United States for four years to participate in Lakota ceremonies. The Lakota are one of the seven tribes of the great Sioux Nation, whose lands were the plains of America’s mid-west.

The words say, “Grandfather, Great Spirit, the four directions of East, West, North and South, Mother Earth, thank you with deepest gratitude.” I particularly love the word “wapila”. In Lakota it means “to be thankful” but with great generosity. To me it means I give myself completely to life in gratitude for my life.

Reflections only

1. Dani Haski, of Australian Story fame, chose a Jewish Meditation from Rosh Hashanah. Her reflections were about a roadside memorial ceremony, 25 years after her brother died…

I found this meditation in the prayer book I use for the Jewish festivals of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). For me, these stanzas describe the essence of memorial – from internal self-reflection to sharing with community, then beyond, to a transcendent experience.

Tragedy, trauma and grief are transformative events, and far too many people in Australia are touched by the tragedy of road trauma. Recently my own childhood trauma has taken me on a life-changing journey. On a bright morning in August 1979, my ten-year-old brother, Ben, was on a school excursion in the outback when the vehicle he was travelling in collided head-on with a panel van on a red dirt road, halfway between Bourke and Brewarrina. Eight young people died, aged between ten and 22 years old.

In 2004, 25 years after this awful accident, I organised a memorial ceremony by the side of that road, and the families met, many for the first time. We stood and remembered our loved ones and shared our feelings.

Trauma and grief have form and mass that we carry inside us. It slips and sloshes around inside our hearts, sometimes spilling out at inappropriate moments. With time, it is contained, and the load is more manageable. Talking about our loved ones and sharing our experience slowly transforms grief and reshapes the anguish. Memorials allow us to feel heard; for our pain to be validated; for our anguish to be acknowledged.

Much healing at our roadside memorial happened without words. It took place in looks and handshakes and embraces, which communicated eloquently our understanding and empathy with each other.

This is the power of memorial: the comfort offered by sharing as part of a community, the strength that comes from being a link in a chain connecting one to the other, and the light which lifts the darkness of despair.

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Excerpts from A World of Prayer

Below are seven excerpts from A World of Prayer, including the reflections of each contributor.

CHUNGLIANG AL HUANG – a philosopher, performing artist, and internationally acclaimed Tao master. www.livingtao.org

May I always follow the Way of Earth,
Follow the Way of Heaven,
Follow the Way of Tao, follow the Way of Nature.
So that Heaven, Human, Earth can become ONE Harmonious Whole.
Love and harmony pervade, and Peace on Earth for ALL.

Tao Te Ching, Verse 25, final 4 lines, attributed to Laozi, translated by Chungliang Al Huang

[see Chinese script]


I was born in China and my earliest learning consisted of the classical “Three Pillars of Asian Wisdom” – self-cultivation through Confucian ethics, Taoist ecological balance between humans and nature, and Buddhist spiritual awareness to cultivate empathy and compassion.

Now, as a world citizen in my senior years, I have continued to abide by these three pillars, integrating the living philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism to provide spiritual and philosophical guidance in everyday life. In my personal prayer, I often still think and chant in Chinese, including these lines from Tao Te Ching.

Confucian teaching helps us to find harmony with other human beings; Taoist teaching helps us to be in harmony with our own true nature and Nature itself; Buddhist teaching helps us to have empathy and compassion with all sentient beings and to sustain our spiritual essence in the eternal NOW.

LIZ BUDD ELLMAN – executive director of Spiritual Directors International, a multi-faith learning community that encourages peace and justice through compassionate, sacred listening. www.sdiworld.org/

Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is yours alone to sing
falls into your open cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world,
so worthy of rescue.

Clearing – Martha Postlethwaite


I recently shared this poem at a multi-faith gathering. Using this poem as a prayer encouraged us to open a clearing for our work together. As servant leaders, when we choose poems and prayers that open space for dialogue at a deep soul level, we help our communities share what we have in common. We discover bridges we might build together towards peace and mutual respect. That might sound grandiose. Yet what I appreciate in the poem is the insistence that clearing a space and patiently waiting for “the song that is yours alone to sing” involves a personal choice that leads to service through a different route.

With so many external demands for our attention – war, famine, drought – choosing to tend our souls may seem small, narcissistic, and risky: “What if it takes a long time”?; “What if I can’t sing”?; “What if I don’t know how to tend my soul”? The poem offers hope. Start anywhere. Trust the clearing. Pray. Meditate. Join a spiritual community. Meet regularly with a spiritual director. Read sacred texts and poetry. These are a few ways to create a clearing.

Mysteriously and powerfully, when we nourish the spiritual aspect of our lives, our unique song arrives. We are given inspiration and the courage to sing, to serve, and to build bridges of peace and mutual respect, filled with gratefulness and joy.

PROFESSOR CHUNG HYUN KYUNG – a Professor of Ecumenical Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, an author, a Christian eco-feminist theologian and a Buddhist dharma teacher in Korean Zen tradition.

Don’t wish for perfect health. In perfect health there is greed and wanting. So an ancient said, “Make good medicine from the suffering of sickness.”

Don’t hope for a life without problems. An easy life results in a judgmental and lazy mind. So an ancient once said, “Accept the anxieties and difficulties of this life.”

Don’t expect your practice to be always clear of obstacles. Without hindrances the mind that seeks enlightenment may be burnt out. So an ancient once said, “Attain deliverance in disturbances”. . .

Make friends but don’t expect any benefit for yourself. Friendship only for oneself harms trust. So an ancient once said, “Have an enduring friendship with purity in heart.”

Don’t expect others to follow your direction. When it happens that others go along with you, it results in pride. So an ancient once said, “Use your will to bring peace between people.”

Expect no reward for an act of charity. Expecting something in return leads to a scheming mind. So an ancient once said, “Throw false spirituality away like a pair of old shoes”. . .

Be equal to every hindrance. Buddha attained Supreme Enlightenment without hindrance. Seekers after truth are schooled in adversity. When they are confronted by a hindrance, they can’t be overcome. Then, cutting free, their treasure is great.

Kyong Ho in Mu Soeng, Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen -Tradition and Teachers


This is a popular prayer among Korean Buddhist practitioners. Whenever I feel life is not what I want, but what it is and what makes me suffer, I read this prayer to try and make my heart calm and peaceful.

Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn answered a young seeker who asked him “what is Buddhism”? to which he replied “Buddhism is ENOUGH mind”! Appreciation and acceptance of “what it is” is the “ENOUGH mind” from which every transformation and happiness becomes possible. This is not a passive resignation, rather a radical acceptance. Become like the water, flow like the stream and you will understand harmony. This is the “Water’s Way” of finding peace, happiness, and quiet courage to change what needs to be changed.

This prayer teaches us to “melt and flow” to the ocean of enlightenment even if our existence feels like solid frozen ice. You do not try to change other people or your circumstances first. You must try to change yourself by “melting” your karma and solid ego first. Then everything changes. This is the “Water’s Way” of liberation.

RABBI JOHNATHAN WITTENBERG – currently rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues UK www.masorti.org.uk

Hear our voice, O Lord our God, have mercy on us and pity us; accept our prayer with favour and with love.
Bring us back to you, God, and we shall return; renew our days as of old.
Do not cast us away from you; do not take your sacred spirit from us.
Do not cast us off in our old age; when our strength grows weak do not forsake us.

The Shema Koleinu


These tender verses are sung to an unforgettable melody at key moments during the Day of Atonement, the most sacred date in the Jewish year. In the Synagogue the holy Ark is opened to reveal the Torah scrolls and the congregation stands. I shall never forget seeing my aged father, barely able to attend services any longer, weeping at the poignant beauty of these words.

This prayer is a call from heart to heart, from the heart of the human being, any and every human being, to the heart of God, seeking only acceptance and love.

In asking God not to take the sacred spirit from us, the prayer affirms that the essence of being human is to know that our spirit, vitality and creativity come from God and that life is a brief but immense privilege.

The prayer addresses God out of a deep awareness of our vulnerability. In illness and old age, stages of life so often scorned in the utilitarian ethos of contemporary society, we ask God to be with us and so give us inner strength and insight.

For all those reasons I love these words and find them humbling. The music to which they are sung renders them sublime.

JAMES ALISON – a priest, theologian and author. www.jamesalison.co.uk

May nothing wind you up,
Nothing affright you;
Everything comes and goes
God, still, just there;
Through patience
All will be achieved.
If you have God,
You lack nothing:
God alone will do.

Teresa of Avila, Nada Te Turbe, translated by James Alison


As someone who lives with a deep sense of panic just below the surface of things, the agitation of being driven by the “turba” or crowd, I find St Teresa’s pithy call back to God very comforting. She kept this brief annotation in her breviary, and I like to think of her coming across it, as something forgotten, when many other things were going on in her life, then finding herself taken to a place of fullness, of being sated. She knows who the real protagonist of all things is, how relaxing that knowledge is, and how much can be let go in its light.

I love the short, sharp, dry word-gestures with which she expresses herself – wonderfully Castilian. That style can’t really be reproduced in English, so I have taken the liberty of being suggestive rather than literal in my translation.

ZAINAH ANWAR – a founding member of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a Malaysian NGO working for women’s rights and currently Director of Musawah, the SIS-initiated Global Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family. www.sistersinislam.org.my

Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim (In the name of God, the Merciful and the Compassionate)

For Muslim men and women,
For believing men and women,
For devout men and women,
For men and women who are patient and constant,
For men and women who humble themselves,
For men and women who give in charity,
For men and women who fast and deny themselves,
For men and women who guard their chastity, and
For men and women who engage much in God’s praise,
For them, has God prepared forgiveness and great reward.

The Qur’an 33:35, Surah Al-Ahzab (The Coalition), translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 1934


This is my favorite verse in the Qur’an as it unequivocally affirms the equality of men and women in their rights and duties as believers, and that God will forgive and reward them both equally.

If women are equal to men before God, why are we then not equal before men? This is the perpetual question Muslim women ask in our struggle to be treated as human beings of equal worth and dignity and our indignation that in the name of Islam, we are denied our right to equality and just treatment.

I love the context in which the verse was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It is reported that one of his wives, Umm Salama, had questioned the Prophet as to why men were often mentioned in the Qur’an and why women were not, thus appearing as if God was speaking to men only. One day as Umm Salama sat in her room combing her hair, she heard the Prophet in the mosque next door recite the verse as it was being revealed to him.

I recite this verse often as it affirms to me the justice of Islam. And at Sisters in Islam, we like to read this verse at the opening of some of our public forums. I commissioned a calligrapher to write the script for this verse and it proudly sits framed at the entrance to the SIS office to remind us all that we are equal before God.


Sister Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun and founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality.

I bow to the one who signs the cross.
I bow to the one who sits with the Buddha.
I bow to the one who wails at the wall.
I bow to the OM flowing in the Ganges.
I bow to the one who faces Mecca,
whose forehead touches holy ground.
I bow to dervishes whirling in mystical wind.
I bow to the north,
to the south,
to the east,
to the west.
I bow to the God within each heart.
I bow to epiphany,
to God’s face revealed.
I bow. I bow. I bow.

Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, “Prayer for Dialogue with Greater Religions” in Prayers for a New Millennium (Missouri: Liguori Publications, 1998), 24


I chose this prayer because it points us all to the awareness that it is an enlightening excursion, this wandering into the spiritual insights of other whole cultures, other whole intuitions of the spiritual life, and other whole traditions of holy ones. It depends for its fruitfulness on openness of heart and awareness of mind. But the journey is well worth the exertion it takes to see old ideas in new ways because it can bring us to the very height and depth of ourselves. It can even bring fresh hearing and new meaning to the stories that come down to us through our own tradition.

My prayer is that those who make the journey become aware of our God and our world, in whole new ways for that is the one great task of life. May the effect of saying such a prayer be an enlightening one. May it awaken in you that which is deeper than fact, truer than thought, and full of faith. May it remind us all that in every human event and culture and history and revelation is a particle of the Divine to which we turn for meaning in this life, to which we tend for fullness of life hereafter.

Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, Coordinator of Monasteries of the Heart.

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